Strokes of genius: National Gallery to exhibit Caravaggio masterpieces

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  • February 17, 2011
CaravaggioTORONTO - There is no cause for sainthood for Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. The painter who gave birth to baroque art was a scoundrel.  

A brilliant virtuoso with a paintbrush, Caravaggio was dangerous with a sword. He paraded about Rome with his weapon at his side and brawled frequently. In 1606 he killed a man. He was himself dead in 1610 at the age of 38.

But no one can claim to understand Caravaggio without understanding his religious world, the spirituality of his times and theological currents coursing through the Church during the Counter Reformation.

More saintly men have painted much less compelling theology than Caravaggio.

At Ottawa’s National Gallery this summer Canadians will have an unprecedented, unequalled opportunity to see Caravaggio’s paintings, and the influence he had on generations of painters who followed him. “Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome” runs June 17 to Sept. 11 at the National Gallery of Canada.

It includes 10 Caravaggio paintings and 50 by 17th-century artists influenced by him, including Peter Paul Rubens, Simon Vouet, Artemisia Gentileschi and others. There has never before been a show of this many Caravaggio paintings in Canada.

“We’re not likely to see another one in our generation, or a couple of generations,” said National Gallery of Canada director and CEO Marc Mayer.

Without understanding Caravaggio’s Christian culture and environment, “You can certainly get part of what he has to say,” said curator and Caravaggio expert Sebastien Schutze at a Feb. 9 Toronto media briefing on the upcoming show. But only part.

“He was remarkably fluent at translating the new ideas about art that came from the Council of Trent into visual images,” explained art critic and Catholic Register columnist John Bentley Mays. “Those ideas that came from the Council of Trent are that art should in fact address the heart.”

Over the past 60 years, popular fascination with Caravaggio hasn’t had much to do with the saints and biblical scenes he painted. Starting with an exhibition in Milan in 1951, Caravaggio was rediscovered as an inspiration for filmmakers and photographers.

The baroque master’s flare for revealing the interior, psychological state of his subjects, combined with dramatic use of light, convinced photographers, cinematographers and film directors there was one old master who shared their artistic concerns.

A revival of interest in Caravaggio based on his technical, painterly innovations is justified, but misses the point, said Mays.

“To appreciate him only for that is to diminish his real, spiritual gift — which was to communicate this wonderful sense of the humane in both God and in people,” he said.

Whatever his failings as a human being, Caravaggio was an artist with spiritual insight.

“The amazing thing about Caravaggio was his ability to communicate the humanity of God,” said Mays. “And that humanity, which he found in ordinary street people he found along his routes in Rome, the models that he found among ordinary women from the streets. He found in ordinary people a revelation of what God can be and what God is. That’s the reason we treasure Caravaggio so much, the reason why Christians should cherish Caravaggio so much.”

Twentieth-century admiration for how Caravaggio filled his canvases with compelling faces, bodies in motion and stark, dramatic lighting didn’t have much to do with the 16th-century tradition of religious painting. Technically, Caravaggio broke from tradition by painting directly from live models rather than relying on sketches. But immediacy of his final images amounts to much more than innovative brushwork.

“The psychological depth (of Caravaggio’s paintings) is something that contemporary audiences respond to,” said Schutze.

That psychological depth is also theological depth. For the first time a painter was imagining St. John the Baptist, the Blessed Virgin Mary, Christ and His disciples as fully human individuals rather than types or sign-posts for our collective conscience.

Ottawa will be the only Canadian stop. Tickets go on sale May 1. For information call 1-888-541-8888.

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